These Canadians are helping black history become part of everyday learning in schools

While walking high school kids through the Vancouver neighborhood where the historic black community of Hogan’s Alley was located, Ruby Smith Díaz sometimes asks teens to snap a picture of something that resonates with them.

Smith Diaz, an arts-focused facilitator, educator and artist, leads these tours as part of her series of workshops exploring Black history and the Black Canadian experience with high school students and fellow teachers.

A student once shared a photo of a mosque after their tour stopped at the Fountain Chapel, one of the few remaining monuments after Hogan’s Alley was largely demolished in the late 1960s and in the early 1970s.

She described the mosque as a “safe place” that helped her understand “why a church might be important to someone of African descent living in Vancouver at that time,” Smith Díaz said.

Each February, more and more Canadian schools dedicate time to Black history and the Black Canadian experience, but what about the rest of the year? Many educators, historians, students, and community members—like Smith Díaz—are working to integrate black history into everyday learning.

Smith Díaz regularly takes high school students on a walking tour of what was once Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver’s historic black neighborhood largely demolished in the late 1960s. (Submitted by Ruby Smith Diaz)

Whether taking guided walks through a historic neighborhood or silkscreening layered maps of Vancouver’s changing landscape over time, common threads are uncovered when learning about Black history, he said. she declared. Beyond simply accepting that the story exists, students ask, “‘How am I connected to the person I see here in this textbook, in this photo?'”

The empathy created during this time is important for students to carry with them as they grow, Smith Díaz said.

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Teaching the Vancouver School Board’s new African Descent History class in British Columbia, Nikitha Fester is inspired by her students’ enthusiasm and finds joy in exploring “people like me, who have shared experiences with me.

The class — open to district high schoolers and already approved to return next year — drew a diverse mix, she said. Among them are black students eager to learn more about their history, students specifically interested in West Coast history, and some inspired by Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements.

Nikitha Fester found joy and inspiration this year teaching the inaugural edition of the Vancouver School Board’s new History of African Descent in BC course (Submitted by Nikitha Fester)

“I see the eagerness and the interest they have,” said Fester, who teaches at Vancouver Technical High School. “They are thirsty for this information.”

Exploring resilience — not just focusing on the historical traumas of Black Canadians — is key to her approach. In turn, she sees students making critical connections between past and present.

“They are able to look at these situations, to critique the systems in place and the laws that have been passed, the decisions and the power dynamics, but also to recognize that people overcome [obstacles] everyday.”

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Educators also need to learn

Learning about and finding connections to Black Canadian history is also important for educators themselves, said Toronto-based educator and writer Greg Birkett.

In each province and territory, the curriculum usually describes the areas of knowledge and skills that students are expected to acquire in each grade or course. Suggested topics to cover or sample activities are sometimes included. But the exact path taken inside the classroom – what books are read, how lessons are given, what activities are undertaken – depends on the teacher.

Teachers Greg and Coleen Birkett, who are siblings, created and present a nine-part webinar series for teachers on the Black Canadian experience with educational publisher Nelson. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

Even if black Canadians can be referenced in the curriculum — a section on settlers in Alberta’s elementary social studies curriculum mentions black rancher John Ware, Birkett noted — if the teachers themselves have a gap in their knowledge is a missed opportunity.

“How are you going to teach what you don’t know?”

Not having seen it in his own schooling until he sought it out at the post-secondary level, Birkett intentionally incorporates Black Canadian history into his teaching.

In one instance, he chose Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes for further study while teaching a higher level English course, rather than the well-honed The Heart Catcher. That first year, a few students questioned Birkett’s book choice. The following year, a white colleague joined Birkett in swapping the novel’s study title. They didn’t hear any student complaining.

While Black history is a common thread from K-12, he says, “students understand that it’s only part of the Canadian story. It’s just part of our fabric and who we are.

He is currently teaming up with his sister, fellow Toronto teacher Coleen Birkett, and instructional publisher Nelson to deliver a nine-part professional development series to teachers across Canada. Online webinars explore key topics from the 1600s to the present day and include resources and suggested activities.

Interconnected stories ‘come to life’, says historian

The mindset that “black history East The history of Canada” has long guided Dalhousie University professor Afua Cooper, from the time when her master’s and doctoral studies in Canadian history came up against the remark “Canadian history is so boring! “, she remembers laughing.

History becomes exciting, Cooper continued, “when you can see how all of these stories are woven together. And within these stories, different themes come to life: civil rights, belonging, citizenship, role models. establishment, the whole question of segregation.”

Dalhousie University professor, historian and writer Afua Cooper teams up with researchers, scholars and educators for A Black People’s History of Canada. The national initiative will create Black Canadian history curriculum and resources to support teachers and students. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

As principal investigator for A Black People’s History of Canada, a project announced in 2021 by federal officials, the Halifax-based historian partners with academic colleagues, universities, cultural groups and others to create at both a black history program and a wealth of multimedia information. Resources. It is intended for all Canadian educators and students.

Black Canadians and the military are just one of their subjects. “When you start to dig deep, you see ‘Oh my God! Here are all those black men in the rebellion of 1837,’ Cooper said.

“There were black militias, black soldiers and black volunteers in this rebellion all along, but you can take an Ontario history book and read about 1837 and you only read white people.”

Call for mandatory learning

Cooper’s team is also reaching out to provincial and territorial departments of education, school boards and teachers’ colleges about the need for mandatory learning about the black experience. That black history has been erased or pushed aside is “outrageous,” Cooper said.

“It is full time that this story is brought to the fore.”

This call for a black history mandate resonates regularly in all regions. B.C. promoters saw momentum last month, when provincial Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside met with educators, advocates and members of the black community. The West Coast group calls for the creation of resources for educators and provincial curriculum updates.

“If the ministry agrees to work with our group, we could see learning resources no sooner than 2023,” said Markiel Simpson, a Vancouver anti-racism advocate who was in attendance.

“Provincial program updates, these will take longer.”

Grade 12 student Emma-Jo Adjekwei first researched the historic Nova Scotian community of Africville for an after-school initiative, and it made her want to learn more.

She and other students from the Peel District School Board researched key people, places and events in Black Canadian history to create plaques, which they then displayed in Brampton, Ontario, and in Toronto.

The project “has always been on my mind in one way or another,” said the 17-year-old, who was inspired to pursue her own study of other historic black communities as well as the history of slavery in Canada.

It’s a “great responsibility” for all teachers and administrators to actively learn and enthusiastically teach black history, she said, beyond “a quick topic you do for the month of February”.


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to stories of success within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(Radio Canada)

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